8 A Complicated Legacy

The announcement of Haley’s death was on the front page of every daily newspaper in the United States and the lead story in all the major television news programs. President George H.W. Bush issued a public statement. The state of Tennessee was in mourning. Funeral services were held in Memphis, Henning, Knoxville, and at John Rice Irwin’s museum.

His brother George Haley, serving as the estate’s executor, soon discovered a financial mess. Haley’s first wife, Nan, and his third wife, My, (whom George hadn’t even met) contested the will, as did a number of others, including several mistresses, his friend George Sims, and the funeral home in Memphis where Haley’s ceremony was held (the bill was never paid). It was assumed Haley had died a rich man; in fact, he died in debt. At one point, he had been one of the wealthiest authors in the country. George, who had served in presidential administrations and was a well-respected Washington, DC lawyer, had no choice but to auction off his brother’s assets and anything else that could be used to pay back $1.5 million in outstanding debt. Everything, including unpublished manuscripts, his Pulitzer Prize award, notebooks full of ideas for prospective stories, personal correspondence, television scripts, items from his days in the coast guard, and the original “two cans of sardines and eighteen cents,” eventually framed once he became wealthy, was for sale to the highest bidder.

It wasn’t long before the court proceedings began to determine who had rights to his future royalties from Roots and books expected to be released. It was decided that they would be divided in thirds—Haley’s three children, his two brothers, and his third wife, My, would each receive a portion. Following a series of legal encounters with Haley’s brother, George, eventually My went bankrupt and had no choice but to sell her hard-fought literary rights for a low sum. His first two wives, Nan and Juliette, as well as friend and researcher George Sims, were allocated a small amount of money.

Soon after the struggles over the estate, Haley’s legacy sustained yet another blow by an exposé published in the Village Voice. Of all the articles challenging the validity of Roots, Philip Nobile’s “Uncovering Roots” was the most damning.

At the outset, Nobile had experienced reluctance about “going after a legend in the black community.” But after conducting research in Alex Haley’s papers at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Nobile concluded that Roots was an outright fraud. His article would later serve as the basis for an inflammatory BBC-sponsored documentary, The Roots of Alex Haley (1997), which was aired in the United Kingdom but not in the United States.

It seemed Nobile had all but hammered the final nail in Alex Haley’s coffin. Having once sold sixty-seven thousand copies of Roots in a single day, the book would—in a decade following his death and in a quarter of a century after its epic broadcast—go out of print.

Still, noticeable traces of book and author remain. In his beloved Knoxville, a 4,200-pound statue of the author sits atop Alex Haley Heritage Square. His 127-acre estate outside of Knoxville, the Haley Farm, was eventually sold to the nonprofit Children’s Defense Fund and is used as a retreat center. The Alex Haley Museum and Interpretive Center (originally known as the Palmer House) in Henning is considered one of Tennessee’s top tourist attractions. In Annapolis, a statue of Haley rests on the City Dock, serving as the “only monument in the United States commemorating the name and place of arrival of an enslaved African.” The US Coast Guard named a 282-foot-long cutter after its most famous member, the first time a military vessel was named after a journalist. On a smaller scale, two college dormitories are named after Haley (one at his father’s alma mater, North Carolina A&T State University, and one at Bowie State University), as well as an inner-city charter school in Chicago (Alex Haley Academy), a celebrity golf tournament in Knoxville, and a municipal swimming pool in Ithaca (Haley’s birthplace).

With the assistance of writer David Stevens, who used the author’s detailed notes and outlines, the estate released two more books under Haley’s name, Queen: The Story of An American Family (1993) and Mama Flora’s Family (1999). Both books would eventually be turned into made-for-television movies.

Aside from permanent memorials and publications, occasionally Haley’s work and ideas have been acknowledged. Recently, for example, in January 2013, during President Barack Obama’s Inauguration on the steps of the United States Capitol, one of the speakers, Haley’s longtime friend, Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander, began his comments: “The late Alex Haley, the author of ‘Roots,’ lived his life by these six words: ‘Find the good and praise it.’”

After thirty-five years, the original Roots miniseries still has six of its eight episodes in the category of most-watched programs, including the final episode that ranks as the third most-watched program ever. And the book itself, after a five-year lull, was picked up by a new publisher and reprinted, finding new shelf life in bookstores and online.

Since its publication and broadcast, Roots continues to resonate in our modern culture—from television shows devoted to tracing a celebrity’s roots to websites that have ignited yet another surge in genealogy. For all that was wrong with Roots, the book’s impact and its message cannot be denied. “Whatever its flaws,” the New York Times editorial team wrote two days following Alex Haley’s death, “Roots opened modern America’s eyes to [its] black heritage…its impact was phenomenal.”

 

 



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